Electric Sphinx 1977 is a pencil drawing on a small, narrow sheet of off-white paper, with a perforated margin along its left edge. The drawing depicts the head, shoulders and torso of a half-human, half-animal creature, with the body of a woman and the ears and nose of a cat. In Greek mythology, a sphinx typically has a reclining feline body, the wings of a bird, and the face and breast of a woman, and is considered a malevolent, dangerous creature. Beuys’s drawing can be seen as a variation on this archetype, its physiological make-up adjusted slightly. The drawing is signed and titled on the reverse of the paper: ‘Joseph Beuys (electric sphinx) Motor-Bitch’, this final odd phrase emphasising the hybridity of woman and machine and confirming the malicious nature of the depicted creature.
While large portions of the drawing are left as single or concentric linear forms, the face is layered with very rough and forceful graphite marks that almost completely obscure the facial features. The effect is a violent one, obliterating the woman’s face and thereby revoking her identity. Beuys’s problematic depiction of women can be seen in many of his other drawings in ARTIST ROOMS, particularly those from the late 1950s such as Weird Sister 1953–62 (Tate AR00100), Wooden Virgin 1958 (Tate AR00639), Witches Spitting Fire 1959 (Tate AR00109) and Pregnant Woman with Swan 1959 (Tate AR00114). In all these works women are transformed into ciphers for the occult, religion or myth, or are identified with animals and plant life. Electric Sphinx appears to return to these themes two decades later, but with the addition of Beuys’s now matured interest in fundamental scientific principles: in this case, electricity and magnetism. In the top left corner of the paper Beuys has drawn one magnet and one cross (a symbol of electrical charge). Electric Sphinx connects the magnetic power of the mythic female sphinx with the generation of a magnetic field by an electrical current. In this context the shapes behind the sphinx could be interpreted as a magnetic field and the cylindrical tubing encircling the body as components in an electric circuit.
The late 1970s was a time of rapid transformation in the artist’s practice, as the curator Bernice Rose has noted: ‘the focus of his drawing changed radically, as did the space in which it took place, as Beuys concentrated on drawing on blackboards as a form of action. His intent remained the same, but, in a larger sense, the space of his drawings did not change at all; it had simply extended its scope, expanding on a cosmic scale.’ (Temkin and Rose 1993, p.108.) His engagement with participatory democracy and various forms of political grass roots action in the 1970s resulted in many lecture-demonstrations which used blackboards as a drawing surface to convey his theories, diagrams and concepts of art. Four Blackboards 1972 (Tate T03594) is the residue of one such performance at Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) in February of that year.
Electric Sphinx was made in the same year as two large-scale sculptural commissions: Tallow, for the city of Münster’s outdoor sculpture exhibition; and Honey pump, for Documenta 6 in Kassel, West Germany. 1977 also witnessed the one hundred days of Beuys’s Free International University, comprised of community workshops, events and discussions, running the length of Documenta 6 (see Tisdall 1979, pp.248–63). As a pencil on paper work with mythic and fantastical subject matter, Electric Sphinx seems to sit uneasily with Beuys’s turn towards large, site-specific sculpture and more ephemeral political and pedagogical actions. However, as the artist explained in 1979: ‘My drawings make a kind of reservoir for me, that I can get important impulses from. In other words, they’re a kind of basic source material that I can draw from again and again.’ (Quoted in Bastian and Simmen 1979, p.94.) This statement suggests the cyclical nature of the artist’s practice, in which ideas from previous years were reincorporated and explored again in new drawings that provided a private form of experimentation to counterbalance Beuys’s extremely public persona during the 1970s.
Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1979.
‘If Nothing Says Anything, I Don’t Draw: A Conversation between Joseph Beuys, Heiner Bastian, Jeannot Simmen, Düsseldorf, August 8, 1979’, in Heiner Bastian and Jeannot Simmen, Joseph Beuys – Zeichnungen, Tekeningen, Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Nationalgalerie, Berlin 1979, pp.91–102.
Ann Temkin and Bernice Rose, Thinking is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1993.